On the fringes of Indian civilization, in the unsettled areas, in the edges of the forest, and in the frightening and impure spaces in the cremation grounds on the edge of major cities, a new vision of Buddhist practice began to emerge. This vision eventually came to be known as Tantra.
The Tantric version of Buddhism brought about a profound change in Buddhist values. Tantric Buddhism began to emerge in India during the 6th century A.D. I use the word emerge because we don’t really know when it began. There are stories that trace back the tradition to the time of the Buddha, but it only emerged as a fully cultural phenomenon many centuries after the lifetime of the Buddha.
Tantra is really a pan-Indian phenomenon. It’s not just found in Buddhism, but also in Hinduism, and in other Indian religious traditions as Jainism. You can also find Islamic Tantra. It is a religious tradition that is found across the whole sweep of the Indian religious landscape.
Tantric Buddhism shares a lot of important concepts, symbols and ritual practices with its tantric counterparts in other Indian traditions. As was true with earlier movements like the Mahayana, Tantric Buddhism produced an extraordinary transformation in Buddhist values. The first question we might ask is wether this means that Tantra is in some sense a whole new form of Buddhism.
Sometimes, people treat the Tantric tradition as a separate vehicle, alongside the Theravada and the Mahayana. I think that it is more accurate and helpful for us to think of Tantra as an extension of the values of the Mahayana. In the next series of articles we are going to study Tantra and its fundamental teachings:
- The Meaning of Tantra: The best way for us to start studying Tantra is to look at some of the names that people use to refer to the Tantric tradition. What does the word Tantra mean? It turns out that this is pretty mysterious. It has several meanings and it is hard for us to know exactly which one is the one that most directly applies to the Tantric tradition.
- The Fundamental Teaching Of Tantric Buddhism: What is the fundamental teaching of the Tantras? Think of Tantra as simply a radical extension of the idea of non-duality. It is about overcoming duality. How does the Tantra do this? In a way that for us is quite striking.
- The Practice of Tantra: A common question about Tantra is whether there is anything that distinguishes the practitioners of Tantra from the ordinary practitioners of other traditions. Who are these people? Who practice Tantra in this form?
- The Buddhist Mandala: The Mandala is a system of Tantric symbolism that is based not in the number two, but in the number five. The word Mandala means simply “circle”. In its most simple form, a Mandala consists of five major points: North, South, East, West and the point of the center.It is useful to think of the Mandala as functioning in a simple ritual way. It simply draws a line around some ritual space, demarcates it and separates it from the profane space that lies outside.